‘Admitting that I couldn’t feed my children was one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever done,’ says Kerry Moncur, a 39-year-old support worker in the South West.
‘Knowing that you can’t even give your child their most basic need – it really is devastating.’
Kerry has been a single mum ever since her daughter – her youngest of three children – was just eight months old. Until her little girl started school the family survived solely on benefits, which left a gaping deficit between money coming in and money going out.
‘Some days, towards the end of the month, my youngest was having to eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and tea,’ she remembers, describing how sometimes she’d feel consumed by guilt.
‘On those days I I felt like I shouldn’t have had her, that I wasn’t good enough. That I would never be good enough.’
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Latest government stats tell us that there are 4.2 million children – that’s 30% – living in poverty in the UK, and that number is forecast to tip 5.2 million by 2022.
But you’d be wrong to assume this is a figure brought about by the pandemic, as it relates to data collated in 2019, before we’d even heard of coronavirus.
Additionally, just days before the whole country went into lockdown, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health released a State of Child Health report which outlined the terrifying impact deprivation was having on the UK’s children and young people, from bullying and social isolation to a rise in child obesity.
That said, there’s no doubt that Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue – there has been over 3million claims made to Universal Credit since the virus began its sweep of the UK, while over 750,000 people have lost their jobs and over 100,000 have been forced to use food banks for the first time.
One charity working hard to change policies surrounding poverty is The Food Foundation. They say that one of the many ways that it manifests in day-to-day life is through ‘food insecurity’, a term used to describe everything from not having a reliable source of food through to being forced to buy lower quality meals and, at the most severe end, simply going hungry.
‘If you’re poor enough that it actually starts to affect how much food you can put on the table, you can see that it’s a more extreme end of poverty,’ explains Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the charity.
It’s this food insecurity and the impact it’s having on our younger generation that has been the motivation behind footballer Marcus Rashford’s recent campaigning.
A child of food poverty himself, he began raising awareness about the issue in June with an open letter to the government asking them to do more to prevent children going hungry, especially during lockdown. Within 24 hours later, an extension of free school meals for kids during the summer holidays was announced.
By September, 23-year-old Rashford – who set up the In the Box campaign with Selfridges last year to give homeless people essential items over the Christmas period – had created the Child Food Poverty Task Force, working alongside a number of UK food shops, manufacturers, charities, and delivery companies.
A month later, he’d launched a petition demanding the government expand the free school meals program and increase the value of food vouchers. It received over 100,000 signatures within 10 hours and by the time it closed at the beginning of this month it had over a million.
While initially the government had voted against the plan, it was the Manchester United player’s dogged determination that forced them to perform a U-turn and two weeks ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to provide significant funding to help support children who are entitled to free school meals over the school holidays.
This package includes a £170m Covid-19 winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in England and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks next year.
However, while it was a positive first move from the government, The Food Foundation made it clear in a press statement released just hours after the announcement, that it by no means eradicates child food poverty.
‘Funding programmes worth more than £400m […] will improve the lives of more than 1.7million children over the next 12 months,’ it read. ‘But we must keep in mind that a similar number of disadvantaged children (approx. 1.7 million) will continue to miss out on the benefits of free school meals and healthy start because the qualifying income criteria are currently set far too low.’
With nearly a third of children aged between eight and 17 years old now registered for free school meals – and 900,000 signing up just this year – that’s a total of 2.2million, according to the Food Foundation’s latest data.
Yet, as Anna Taylor points out, if you take into account the aforementioned 4.2 million young people living below the poverty line, it’s a figure that simply doesn’t add up.
‘You have to be earning less than £7,400 a year before benefits to be entitled to free school meals,’ she explains, ‘meaning there are many children living in poverty who don’t get them simply because they’re just not quite poor enough.’
Lee Healey, founded personal money advice service Income Max in 2009, and says starkly, ‘The point about all this is that financial difficulties are a reality for many families, 365 days a year, Covid-19 aside.
‘Without a shadow of a doubt I’ve seen the situation get worse over the decade and child food poverty has long been an issue in the UK – Marcus Rashford’s campaign has just brought it to the attention of MP’s and the wider public now.’
Now that her youngest daughter is in school, Kerry works at Wells’ Elim Connect Centre as part of its outreach programme.
‘If I don’t keep the roof over my daughter’s head, then there’s no point being able to buy food because I won’t be able to cook for her,’ she says. ‘So rent is top of the list, along with making sure I can put the heating on when she’s cold.’
The Bread and Butter Thing is another vital project for low-income families, which uses donations of surplus food from supermarkets to fulfil grocery subscriptions at a heavily reduced price. It’s currently seeing a 10% increase in demand, week on week.
Ang Cassells from Partington in Manchester is just one of the many local parents who rely on this discounted food, and also volunteers for the organisation.
With six children – three of whom still live at home – she was forced to give up work when her husband died eight years ago and her youngest son was diagnosed with autism, leaving money tight and food shopping a challenge.
‘My budgets were definitely slashed when my husband died of cancer,’ says Ang. ‘As time goes on prices go up, but your income never goes up, your benefits never increase to match, so The Bread and Butter Thing has been a godsend. It really helps my finances.’
Her son’s autism means that there are only a certain few things he’ll eat – a specific shop-bought tuna sandwich and strawberries, for instance. Neither of which come cheap.
This is a huge concern for Ang who, as well as having to feed four mouths at home, doesn’t have any mainstream food stores in the local area.
‘We don’t have any decent shops locally, just a small supermarket which is poorly stocked and overpriced,’ she says. ‘A lot of the things I need I can’t get from this area so I have a car, but that costs money, too.’
Talking about her work as a volunteer, Ang has seen how difficult it is for some to ask for help.
‘It’s hard to bring yourself to use a food bank,’ she says. ‘People can really struggle with it – and that’s even if they fit the criteria, which some don’t – they don’t want to ask for hand outs.’
Lee Healey explains that it’s really easy to slip into poverty or in a situation where food insecurity becomes an issue.
‘Anyone can fall on hard times, because life happens,’ he says. ‘Things like separating from a partner, mental health issues, disability, unemployment or bereavement can cause quite severe income shocks and indebtedness.
‘When circumstances and systems work against you, poverty can take a grip. That’s when we need to support people the most. That’s why work must pay enough to live, our social security system must provide an adequate safety net and debt relief must be strengthened for vulnerable families struggling to keep their head above water.’
‘When the last financial crisis happened, the government obviously started to try to save money and one of the ways that they decided to do that was by cutting the welfare budget.
‘Before that, the amount you received was genuinely designed to try and help you to live, alongside your full housing benefit and full council tax support. Then all of a sudden the welfare cuts came in – people were seeing their benefits capped, or perhaps were subject to the bedroom tax or local housing allowance and having to make yet another a contribution to their council tax, all in the meantime trying to pay their bills.’
Yasmin Akpinar, 21, is Kerry’s eldest daughter. A single mother to a three year old daughter, she is also a qualified support worker but has been out of work since February.
Benefits have been her sole income for the last nine months, meaning budgeting successfully has been nigh on impossible, even with the help she received via the Elim Connect Centre.
‘At the beginning, I was going through all of my direct debits and was on my bank app daily, trying to work out that if I didn’t pay this bill, could I just about scrape enough money for that one?’ she explains. ‘It’s the toughest decision you ever have to make, but it was one that was running through my head even with the help from the Connect Centre.
‘I was really questioning myself: do I need a phone? Do I need Wi-Fi? Can I cut my electric bill in half this month? It just became impossible and I found myself borrowing too much money from family, because I just didn’t have enough to go round.’
The knock-on effects of financial strain really started to take hold over lockdown for Yasmin, who has struggled with depression since she was a teenager.
‘I very quickly went downhill,’ she says. ‘And obviously, children pick up on it, they really know your every emotion, even if you don’t tell them.
‘I just think people aren’t realising the situation. It’s fine to say,” well, you’re getting through, you’re getting by, you’re doing it.” But they don’t understand the effect it can have. By making it extra tough on the parents, it’s basically extra hard for the kids in the long run. And I don’t think people quite grasp that.’
Kerry shares these concerns and how the situation might impact her youngest daughter.
‘Not only is she affected by me not being able to feed her properly, she’s also affected by me not being able to give her the emotional attention she deserves because I’m feeling like such a rubbish mum,’ she says.
‘Sometimes I just haven’t got it in me to give to her.’
As well as the emotional toll child food poverty can take on whole families, it can also be a huge detriment when it comes to children’s health and relationships with food.
‘I feel like it’s a chore for my daughter to sit down and eat,’ explains Kerry. ‘She can’t physically eat two hot dishes most days, which I think is because of those formative years, when I could never give her three proper meals a day.
‘And I struggle regularly to get her to eat healthily because it’s a lot cheaper to feed her on chicken nuggets and chips – and at least I know that she’s going to eat that. If I cook a more nutritious meal I might end up binning it, so not only does it cost more to buy but I’m more likely to waste it.’
Kerry’s comments are echoed in a 2014 study which found that healthy foods were often more costly than less nutritious meals – and, six years on, things still haven’t changed, according to Anna Taylor.
‘Calorie for calorie, a healthy food is three times more expensive than an unhealthy food,’ she says.
‘My daughter loves strawberries and grapes,’ adds Kerry. ‘I’d love to be able to buy them so she could have fruit for breakfast every morning, because that would be quite healthy. But I just can’t afford it. Strawberries and grapes are a treat, and I don’t think they should be.’
It’s unsurprising, then, that data from the National Child Measurement Programme found a correlation between child poverty and their chance of being obese: children living in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas.
‘When it comes to food, it’s the cheaper the better,’ admits Yasmin. ‘It means you can feed them for the whole month. So we are eating something, but not healthily, because it’s simply too expensive.’
There are many concerns surrounding the development of children from families who struggle to afford the monthly food bill.
While data shows that children from lower-income families are, on average, 1cm shorter than their financially stable counterparts, it’s not just their physical health that’s impacted.
Their educational and social development is also hit: those entitled to free school meals are three times less likely to meet the expected reading standard.
‘We know that hunger, in particular, will affect concentration in schools, which in turn affects behaviour, and how well children do in school,’ says Anna. ‘This behaviour can then have knock-on effects on things such as children’s relationships because if they’re behaving badly the other kids might not want to hang out with them. There’s a whole cluster of wellbeing impacts – mental and emotional.’
Lee Healey believes that what stands in the way of child food poverty being eradicated is a lack of understanding among those who don’t live with it, which is something that urgently needs to be addressed.
‘There are so many misconceptions out there, but one of the biggest I think is that you can educate people out of poverty, like it’s all to do with spending,’ he explains.
‘But everyone that we work with budgets unbelievably well based on what they’ve got, so it’s a myth that people just need to learn how to do that.
‘Child food poverty is an issue all of us have responsibility for, because it stems from all the choices our government makes economically and morally,’ Lee continues.
‘We need serious debate about financial wellbeing and the stresses families are facing – and it’s an issue that shouldn’t polarise political opinion, because we should all want humans to thrive.
‘Scotland, Wales and NI are already taking a strong lead on child poverty while England is in danger of being left behind by the devolved administrations who are able to act a bit more decisively as they now have the power to do so. All kudos to them.’
The shocking truth is that almost 90% of children born into poverty will never escape it. Meaning their own children may well also experience food insecurity and likely have their futures shaped by it. This is something Kerry is already seeing play out.
‘I’m watching my oldest as a single parent now, go through some of the things I have experienced. I hate having to watch her struggle,’ she says.
‘It makes me wonder what my youngest is going to be like when she has kids. Is she still going to have the worry of not being able to afford to feed her children? It’s a scary thought that, actually, the government might not change anything.
‘I think a lot of people see this as an issue to do with the pandemic – and something that will be fixed once coronavirus has gone – but it’s really not.’
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